Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Peters, Edward
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Nash, David
Accession Number: 230778709
Full Text: Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History. By David Nash (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. xiv plus 269 pp. ill. 23. $75.00).

The Christian world is a big and old place whose territorial boundaries and the ubiquity, varieties, and intensity of whose Christianity have changed considerably over the course of centuries. Few people today are likely to swear publicly by the hair or head of God (spontaneously or deliberately, drunk or sober), and fewer still are likely to call them to any sort of account for doing so. But blasphemy, as David Nash points out in this immensely informative and intelligently argued book, has meant and now means many more things than such anthropomorphizing oaths and has had more targets than Christian religious sensibility. In the very first line of the book, Nash defines blasphemy as "the attacking, wounding, and damaging of religious belief," implying that blasphemy, like beauty, is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder. But he immediately acknowledges that it is better understood as a kind of trace-element for the entire process of modernization and secularization as understood in the West, the "Christian World" of the title. And he lays out the irony that that very "Christian world," with its articulation of toleration and rights, multiculturalism and free expression, has gotten itself into a dilemma with which it is ableis barely able to cope. His broad approach makes Blasphemy a more useful and informative (and generally less single-minded) book than Leonard Levy's and David Lawton's recent studies, because he does not assume as narrow a perspective as they. (1)

Nash opens the book with a chapter that puts the contemporary relevance and problematic of blasphemy as outraged religious sensibility squarely in front of the reader, from the cases of Pym Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands to the UK debates over jerry Springer: The Opera and the riots over the Sikh drama Behzti in 2004, as well, of course, as the Rushdie affair and Muslim outrage at the Danish cartoons of 2005. His second and third chapters offer a chronological account of blasphemy definitions and prosecutions from 1500 to 1800 and from 1800 to 2000. The second chapter briefly discusses biblical and other antiquity and early medieval Christianity, but unfortunately Nash is inexperienced and quite out of his depth with Christian (and general European) history before 1500, and the scholarship he seems to have relied on has not served him well. (2) But he hits his stride in the early modern period when he has some first rate scholarly help, as he does in the early modern period, especially from the work of Alain Cabantous, Maureen Flynn, and Gerd Schwerhoff. (3) These chapters are also impressive because of the range of territory covered by Nash, from Scandinavia and the Netherlands to Australia and North America.

Nash's chronology serves him well in his discussion of the changing sociology of blasphemers in Ch. 4, the socio-political control of blasphemy and blasphemers in Ch. 5, and responses to blasphemy--a study of victims and communities--in Ch. 6. Nash is astute in considering theologians' (especially Aquinas and Vives) changing discussion of the psychology of the blasphemer and the problem of momentary passion and prophylactic devotional measures of guarding against it. Chapter 7 is a fine study of the relatively new role of film and media generally, the latter, as seen in the Rushdie and Danish cartoon cases, immensely influential in creating an outraged global public which can increase the pressure applied by minority groups in the country where the offense took place. (4) These chapters are intelligent social history and constitute a useful perspective on the process of modernization, one that, as Schwerhoff among others has pointed out, often conflicts with current master narratives, e.g., thoseat of Johan Huizinga and Norbert Elias. Nash is also very good on the visual evidence, from the in-your-face savagely polemical religio-political cartoons of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (which, with portraits, constitute most of his illustrations) to the power of film, from Luis Bunuel to Monty Python and Martin Scorsese and the role of the artist as blasphemer.

Everyone who writes about blasphemy has recognized its highly elusive and changing character. Nash is good at distinguishing blasphemy from heresy (particularly important because in some times and places, blasphemy, sometimes along with magic and witchcraft, was regarded and treated as a greater offense than heresy) and anti-blasphemy laws from simple censorship. He takes religion and religious sensibilities seriously and wisely does not overestimate the triumph of secularization, particularly in the case of Providentialism, when the prospect of indiscriminate divine wrath is a significant component of belief. But he also notes the different treatment meted out to blasphemers of different social ranks or those whose manner or motive pass whatever muster is currently applicable, especially when that muster and the victim of blasphemy happened to become the state itself. Although he points out the trope, he does not usually assume that the European past is the same as the non-European present, i.e., that such terms as "medieval obscurantism" are appropriate or remotely accurate in dealing with non-western cultures, religious or other.

In short, this is the book in English to start with. It will readily instruct, but it will also irritate. It is often awkwardly written and very badly edited. The surname of the current pope is twice misspelled as Reitzinger (19). Robert Darnton becomes Daunt on (68), and Robert Rossellini becomes Rossolini (93). James Nayler often becomes Naylor (e.g., 122). Chapel Hill is not in Nebraska (65, n.80). St. Columbanus syntactically becomes a contemporary of Origen of Alexandria (43). Much as they hated him, the Jesuits did not murder William of Orange (14). German Grenzen (borders) becomes Granzen (73, n. 3), not, as far as I know, a German word. Nash usually avoids postmodern jargon, but there is rather too much of the "gaze" here for comfort (e.g. 9, 143). And there is more. These criticisms are not picky - this is a good book, the product of a lot of work and thought. The author should have treated his considerable achievement more carefully.


(1.) Leonard W. Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie (New York, 1993); David Lawton, Blasphemy (Philadelphia, 1993). A good review article is Gauri Viswanathan, "Blasphemy and Heresy: The Modernist Challenge," Cimperative Studies in Society and History 37 (1995). 399-412, not cited by Nash.

(2.) Nash should have used the monumental study of Corinne Leveleux, La parole interdite. Le blaspheme dans la France medievale (XIIIe-XVle siecles):du peche au crime (Paris, 2001), which deals very well extensively with earlier periods, as does the work of Edwin D. Craun, "Inordinata locutio: Blasphemy in Pastoral Literature, 1200-1500," Traditio, 39 (1983) and Silvana Vecchio in Carla Casagrande and Silvana Vecchio. I peccati dela lingua (Rome, 1987), 229-240. Fr. trans. 1991, neither of which is cited by Nash.

(3.) Nash does not offer much in the way of a survey of the field of scholarship. A good survey is that in Gerd Schwerhoff, Zungen wie Schwereter. Blasphemie in alteuropaischen Gesellschaften 1200-1650 (Constance, 2005), 7-20, with a final comment on modernity, 312-18.

(4.) On the semantic range of the Arabic terms for blasphemy see the work of the literary scholar Ian Richard Netton, Text and Trauma: An East-West Primer (London, 1996), 1-7.

Edward Peters

University of Pennsylvania
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.